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West Jordan Journal

What makes a state champion in Utah high school sports?

Sep 19, 2018 02:29PM ● By Jana Klopsch

The Alta boys soccer team celebrates another state title, beating Viewmont, 2-1, to win the 5A championship. (Photo by Ron Bevan/City Journals)|

By Justin Adams | j.adams@mycityjournals.com 

Fall is an exciting time for high school sports. Every team starts with a clean slate and a new senior class of leaders eager to leave their mark on their school. Ask any coach and they’ll be positive that their team has made big improvements from the previous year and are ready to compete for region and state championships. But in reality, some schools have almost no chance of winning a championship in any sport. 

It’s no secret that competitive balance isn’t a prevalent feature of high school sports. Some schools are really good. Others aren’t. But what makes the difference? The size of the school? The coaching? The program’s history? Money? All these factors contribute, but some are much more important than others. 

To figure out which are the most important, we took all the schools that currently compete in 5A and 6A and counted the number of state championships they have won in the last five years across all team sports. Then we compared those totals to various criteria like enrollment, graduation rates and levels of wealth. 

Enrollment 

Obviously there are different classifications in Utah high school sports, from 1A to 6A, that are largely based on enrollment. A team from 6A is always going to be better than a team from 1A because you’re going to have more athletes when pulling from a pool of 2,000-plus students than when pulling from a pool of a couple hundred students. 

But what about within a single classification? Do schools with a higher enrollment have an advantage over smaller schools within the 5A or 6A divisions? Not really. 

 In 6A, the school with the highest enrollment, Granger High School, hasn’t won a single state championship in the last five years. (Enrollment numbers taken from publicschoolreview.com.) And in 5A, the top 50 percent of schools in terms of enrollment account for 36 state championships, while the bottom 50 percent account for 45 state championships. 

Graduation Rates

People often think about athletics and academics as two completely different spheres, perhaps even antithetical to one another (as in the old nerd vs. jock stereotypes). But it turns out there’s a strong correlation between graduation rates and on-the-field success for Utah high schools.     

Of the 24 schools with a graduation rate of 92 percent or better, only five have failed to win a state championship in the last five years. Of the 20 schools with a graduation rate of 91 percent or worse, half of them have failed to win a championship in the same span. And the top 50 percent of schools by graduation rate account for nearly three times as many state championships as the bottom 50 percent (100 to 35). 

 Those numbers didn’t surprise Rob Cuff, the executive director of the Utah High School Activities Association, the governing body of Utah high school sports. “Your best students are usually also your best athletes,” he told the City Journals. “I think they go hand in hand.”

Cuff also said that the UHSAA committee charged with handling reclassifications has considered incorporating graduation rates into their decision-making progress.

Of course, correlation does not equal causation. Perhaps there is a third factor that contributes to both athletic and academic success. 

Wealth of Student Athletes 

Wealth is a difficult metric to measure for a school body. School boundaries don’t often align with the areas (cities, counties, zip codes) for which you can access public data like median household income. Instead, like others who have considered this same question, we looked at the rate of students that qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a “federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions.” To qualify for the reduced or free lunches, families need to be under a certain poverty level. Schools that participate in the program report the percentage of their students that take advantage of the program, making those reports a relatively convenient method of comparing affluence between schools.

Of the high schools competing in 5A and 6A, those with a low percentage of students using the NSLP program have a large advantage when it comes to sports.

The top 25 percent of high schools in terms of wealth (as measured by NSLP participation) have 10 times as many state championships as the bottom 25 percent of high schools, and more than the bottom 75 percent combined.

There also aren’t as many outliers as when considering graduation rates. Having a graduation rate of 95 percent or above is a strong indicator of success (the three schools with the most state championships all have graduation rates of 95 percent) but it’s no guarantee, as two other schools with graduation rates of 95 percent did not win a single state championship over the five years. However, when it comes to affluence, there isn’t really an exception. Of the 12 schools with a 15 percent NSLP usage rate or less, every single one has won multiple state championships, with the two most dominant schools being at the very lowest rates of NSLP usage.

Conversely, of the 21 schools in which 25 percent or more of the student body uses the NSLP program, over half did not win a single state championship in the last five years.

 If one were to choose a single metric to predict which Utah high schools will win the most state championships in 2018, this is it. 

It’s not ideal for competitive balance that the least affluent schools have little to no chance of being in the best in the state, but competitive balance isn’t the end goal for UHSAA. 

“I think it’s important to maintain a level playing field,” said Cuff, “but our mission is all about participation. If teams are fielding sports teams and students have the opportunity to play, that’s the most important.” 

So as much as each high school student athlete is full of hope and as much as any coach thinks they’re going to finally turn their program around, in all likelihood the same schools will continue to win championships and everyone else will get the proverbial participation trophy.


To see the complete data set used for this article, click here.